MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — A Columbia University student said she'll carry a dorm room mattress with her everyone she goes to protest the presence of her alleged rapist on campus and as a performance art piece meant to spark debate.
Emma Sulkowicz, 21, one of the more vocal opponents in an ongoing student-led battle with the administration over its rape and sexual assault policies, made her protest even more visible Tuesday, with the launch of her mattress-carrying project on her first day back at school.
Now in her senior year, Sulkowicz was raped two years ago by a male student in her class who was found not guilty by the university and was allowed to remain on campus, she said. She'll continue to carry the mattress until he's suspended or expelled, she said.
"I was raped in my own dorm bed...The reason why it’s such a powerful image for me is that’s where I was attacked. It’s about carrying the weight of what happened there on my back," she said of carting the long thin mattress around. Her protest was first reported by the Columbia Spectator.
Sulkowicz purchased the mattress from the same company the university uses and will carry it with her as long as her rapist is on campus, depositing it back in her campus art studio whenever she heads off Columbia grounds.
The project, which she said is a form or art and protest, will be part of her senior thesis within the university's School for Visual Arts, she said.
"I hope it resonates with people who have also been in a position where they had nothing else left to do but do something crazy," she said in an interview Tuesday.
Her campaign has heightened her anxiety on campus, but she's ready for negative comments and criticism, she said.
Sulkowicz has not shied away from media attention in the past, appearing next to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at news conferences, but she said this new project strips her completely of her anonymity — something which makes her nervous.
She is one of the 23 Barnard and Columbia students who filed a complaint against the university over its treatment of sexual assault victims with the federal Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights in late April. A decision has not yet been reached as to whether the university will be subject to a federal investigation.
Students have written the names of alleged rapists on bathroom walls. They've also pasted red tape on university statues and adorned themselves with it to protest the silencing of student voices.
President Lee Bollinger announced more changes to the way the school dealt with such cases on Aug. 15, including new case managers to help guide victims, but student groups said they didn't go far enough.
In the past, students have criticized the university for not expelling students found guilty of rape by a university review board and of handing out lenient punishments, with suspensions that don't go beyond a semester.
"We just can’t let the pressure up until our campus is safe," said Sulkowicz, who is also a member of the sexual assault advocacy group No Red Tape.
Columbia declined to comment.